A friend who writes a lot about gender equality admitted that someone once said to him, “Stop worrying about women and concentrate on the gospel!” The assumption, of course, is that whatever one takes to be “the gospel”[i] has nothing to do with whether women are treated as human beings. It’s just about getting your “sins” erased so that you can “go to heaven.” And any time we spend worrying about anything other than getting people to heaven is a distraction.
The problem, of course, is that the actual Gospel[ii] has next to nothing to do with “getting our sins erased so we can go to heaven” and everything to do with the establishment of the Kingdom of God. As the Lord said in his prayer, we seek God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, being saved from sin means being saved to live differently according to a very different set of values and assumptions. These assumptions are shocking to the world.
The religious dualism that convinces people the Gospel has nothing to say about systems of power, injustice, and oppression is the same one that has convinced many that it also has nothing to do with “economy” or “economics.” I use “economy” here broadly, not just (but including) the concept of money. Economy is bigger than money. It’s about how everyone and everything survives, how resources are used, and how things, creatures, and people are taken care of.
It’s no coincidence that after the Pentecost event and the establishment of the church in Acts 2, the first description of what the church did included worship, prayer, teaching, and the establishment of an alternative economy within the body that looked very different from the power-driven, exploitative, military-checked capitalism of the Roman empire—an economy which most folks back then assumed to be necessary. It was just the way things worked. There were poor classes and rich classes and slave classes, merchants and consumers, everyone in their place under Caesar.
It’s not much different for 21st century Christians whose thinking about things like shopping, how much we consume, what we throw away, what we eat and drink, and where we get our food (and whether or not slaves are involved) is captivated by the central assumption that our economic values are “necessary,”[iii] that they require no reflection and are morally and theologically neutral. Shopping is a form of entertainment, food comes in throw-away plastic containers, and what does going to heaven have to do with any of that?
It’s similar to asking the question (even without assuming the answer), “should Christians serve in the military?” Frequently, one is met with, “What do you mean ‘should?’ Of course they do! You want a bunch of pagans fighting your wars?” The lack of ambiguity is simply a forgone conclusion.
When pressed, though, the person asked will, invariably, become irritated and, eventually, offended. And it’s precisely because assumptions formed by the teaching of Jesus about something like violence undermine the assumptions that people use to make sense of the world around them—assumptions which help them feel safe and secure. There simply are “bad people” who want to harm “us” and must be killed. We prepare to kill them if they ever enter our homes and we send our children to kill them overseas on the world scale. That some of them will certainly die doing so is the “sacrifice” that makes our “freedom” noble. To begin to rethink this reality calls into question every other assumption one has about what is true and right. To consider the possibility that it’s wrong is deeply unsettling.
I have found the same incredulity of response when questioning American consumerism. In a conversation a few months ago I made a statement that made sense to me but just bewildered a friend of a friend. I said, “I think we have to learn to stop treating the earth like it’s a source of resources.” I thought it was obvious that I meant we ought to think of the world as more than a source of resources and that those resources are limited and meant to be shared—that we should treat it like it’s our home and like it requires our carefulness. This person, clearly astonished that I could be so naïve, responded, “Where else are we going to get our resources, Mars?” His next comment implied he had serious doubts about my intelligence. I was the guy who was against killing cows but thought hamburger was ok because it “came from the store.”
The exchange would have been humorous if it weren’t so sad. His incredulity was due to his unwillingness (perhaps inability) to consider that the ways and rates at which we consume “resources” (a useful reductionist euphemism for the land, creatures, trees, and people around us) has moral and even theological implications. “Hell, we gotta get our resources from somewhere!” What I was presenting him with was so different and so challenging that it undermined his central assumption about how economies work. It was outside of anything he had ever thought about and was unsettling for him. And he responded the way people do when their core assumptions are called into question.
On a larger scale, one sees this in the phenomenon of climate change denial. For some time, I’ve wondered why the notion that our lifestyle has affected the climate generates such passionate screeds and accusations of “liberal agendas.” Why is clean water a political agenda? Well, it’s actually obvious. When people respond to data suggesting CO2 emissions are harming the earth, it implies that driving cars and clearcut logging are no longer morally neutral things. Pointing to plastic islands in the Pacific and plastic crises in third world or developing countries implies that our greedy, throw-away lifestyle is ruining other people’s lives and we have an obligation to stop.
Think of it this way: the accusation that being concerned about climate change is tantamount to “socialism” is an admission that western rampant capitalism is destroying the planet.[iv] Even Donald Trump understands this. In a recent press conference, when asked whether he still rejected the data on climate change, Trump claimed he wasn’t interested in losing American wealth on dreams and windmills. He understands (I make no claims on how explicitly) that love for our neighbors, plants, creatures, and the earth means changing the values of the economy. And he (explicitly) chooses greed over love. That “believers in Jesus” applaud this reveals just how dualistic and simplistic the faith they’ve been taught actually is.
This is what becomes evident when one examines it in much detail. These economies (I want to speak more broadly than just American capitalism) are inherently violent and unjust. They exploit and use up and destroy without concern for neighbors, fish, trees, and birds. The way we set up and live in our societies are, in fact, extensions of the way we view one another and the world. They are contingent on the minds and imaginations of sinful, greedy, and violent people. They are founded on a lie that we are all individual consumers in a land of unlimited resources, tasked by God to use up as much as we can before we die.
But the Gospel of Jesus presents an alternative. This is the alternative we hope to understand in our class, THE 310-Christian Community in the World. The description is: A study of the Kingdom of God as it restores community and creation. You can listen to Vangie Rodenbeck and me talk about it here. We’ll be reading together one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, one that puts feet on some of the remarkable values we’ll be discussing, a book called Jayber Crow. If you’re interested in the author, Wendell Berry, the best introduction to his work I’ve ever read is here. For myself, I can tell you that this perspective has affected me deeply, and I’ve written extensively about it. Here is one of my more meaningful attempts.
These are the questions which will be informing the dialogue of our class:
- What does peace look like when it comes to how cantankerous people live near and with one another?
- How does peaceful community challenge the myth of western individualism?
- What values shape Christian thinking about economy and consumption?
- Where does our food come from and why does that matter?
- What does a life shaped by these values look like?
- What does our theology have to say about the land and waters, the plants and creatures that live in these, the value of humans and their relationship to all of it?
- What does it mean to exercise the image of God in his creation?
- What is the eschatological message of a theology that cares about the earth, its people, plants, and creatures?
In one of my classes years ago, I quoted NT Wright about the irony that some who were strict “creationists” were those who were the least concerned about taking care of “creation.” The immediate (and sincere) response from one of my students was “but what about abortion?”[v] She, like many evangelicals, had been fooled into thinking that abortion is the only contemporary moral issue the Gospel has any application to. That to care about how we treat the earth means we must accept partial-birth abortion. This, however, is a lie which has distracted evangelicals from a myriad of other important issues, manipulated them into blind political allegiance which embroils them in ceaseless culture wars, and is itself antithetical to the Gospel. In my opinion it has even disrupted their ability to think about abortion itself.
The truth is, the Gospel speaks into every part of our lives because it seeks to restore God’s whole created order, and believing this only deepens our understanding of the work of Jesus in this world, of peace and the value of life, and how to live as an alternative Kingdom community within the kingdoms of the world whose values are not the Lord’s…but, more on this when you take the class.
Please join us.
Follow the Link here to register.
[i] I want to point out that I use a lower-case “g” when I’m referring to a gospel that I take to be different from the Gospel.
[ii] See what I mean?
[iii] It may not be clear, but my intent is to use the term “necessary” in an ontological sense—as opposed to “contingent.” “Necessary” here meaning “having itself as the source of its own being.” It just “is” and can’t be helped.
[iv] Politically, this is something that “progressives” like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez readily (if not partially) accept and have attempted to write into their national policies. It is something that, I believe, “conservatives” try to ignore and have attempted to stifle by drawing ridiculous caricatures of these policies. My concern is that conservatives and progressives, each, are too invested in this economy to adequately address the problems. It will require a change of thinking and values to truly present a Kingdom solution.
[v] The truth is, this is a common reaction and one which genuinely mystifies non-conservative folks who struggle to understand how people who can be so adamantly “pro-life” can be so unconcerned about the places we “live” in.